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Variety of Bible-based beliefs:

We are faced with a dilemma:

bulletVarious Christian groups -- conservative Protestants, liberal Protestants and Roman Catholics have reached different beliefs about under which conditions the Bible permits divorce, if any.
bulletEven those groups who interpret the Bible as permitting divorce may or may not allow remarriage.
bulletEach of the authors and webmasters who has written on these topics seem to conclude that their belief alone is the correct interpretation of the Bible.

The main positions are:

  1. Neither divorce nor remarriage are allowed. (A conservative Protestant view)
  2. Divorce is OK, but remarriage is forbidden. (A second conservative Protestant view)
  3. Divorce is OK; remarriage is OK, in cases of adultery or desertion; (A conservative/mainline Protestant view)
  4. Divorce is OK for many reasons; remarriage is OK  -- described below . (A mainline/liberal Protestant view)
  5. Divorce is impossible, unless the marriage never existed. (Roman Catholic)
  6. Divorce is OK in cases of marriage breakdown; remarriage is OK. (Religious liberal and secular view.)

This essay describes the fourth position: that the Bible allows many grounds for divorce and allows remarriage.

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This view has been well argued by author Larry Richards. 1,2 He holds the positions that:

bulletVery restrictive views -- those prohibiting all divorces, and those which allow divorces but not remarriage -- are based on the invalid belief that marriage is indissoluble, except after the death of one spouse. The Bible does not teach this.
bulletDivorces and subsequent remarriage are acceptable responses to a failed marriage, on grounds of adultery, desertion and many other behaviors.

Richards asks that:

"If God treated human frailty so graciously in the age of the Law and permitted not only divorce but also subsequent remarriage, how can we, in this age of grace, treat divorce and remarriage so legalistically"?  3

ChristianDivorce.1hwy.com concludes:

"No Christian must remain within a marriage to a murder, thief, liar, slanderer, [or an] abusive, hostile, violent spouse (or any [spouse whose] ...behavior ... is criminal or immoral)..." 11

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Key passages from the Hebrew Scriptures:

The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) includes the following passages about divorce and remarriage. The explanations of these passages is almost identical to those found in our essay on divorce/remarriage for adultery and desertion:

bulletGenesis 2:24: Leaving and cleaving: "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh." The key words in this verse are "leave," "cleave," and "one flesh." This describes the typical sequence of events leading to a normal heterosexual marriage. The term "one flesh" has sometimes been used to imply that marriage is forever. However, Paul uses the same phrase in Corinthians 6:6 to describe a man engaging in sexual activity with a prostitute -- hardly an indissoluble relationship. We can conclude that Genesis 2 is silent on the matter of divorce and subsequent remarriage. 
bulletDeuteronomy  24:1-2 Divorce and remarriage: "When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife." Divorce was a practice that had been imported by the ancient Hebrews from adjacent Middle-Eastern Pagan cultures, where it was a universal custom, along with slavery and polygyny. This passage allowed a man to divorce his wife (or wives). She was then free to remarry another man. However, it did not allow a woman to divorce her husband. It is unclear what the term "uncleanness" means. Presumably it does not mean that she had committed adultery, because then she would have been executed by stoning.

The passage does not approve of divorce. It remains an unfortunate personal failure for the couple involved. God's ideal pattern for marriage is that it be permanent. If God approves of an individual divorce, it is only because it is the least-worse option to a couple whose marriage has failed.
bulletEzra 9:1-2: Religious intolerance -- requiring couples in mixed-marriages to divorce: "...The people of Israel, and the priests, and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the people of the lands, doing according to their abominations, even of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken of their daughters for themselves, and for their sons: so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with the people of those lands: yea, the hand of the princes and rulers hath been chief in this trespass." Ezra was a scribe who had led a small group of Jews from exile in Babylon back to Jerusalem. He found that many Jews had entered into inter-faith marriages with women from nearby Pagan countries. He felt that if these marriages continued, the Jewish people would quickly lose their national identity and start to worship other Gods. He ordered the marriages terminated. It is probable that the Hebrew men remarried within their religion and remarried. Otherwise, they would have no additional children to help restore the Jewish national identity.
bulletMalachi 2:10:  Religious intolerance -- requiring couples in mixed-marriages to separate: "Judah hath dealt treacherously, and an abomination is committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah hath profaned the holiness of the LORD which he loved, and hath married the daughter of a strange god." Malachi is faced with the same problem as Ezra, described above. Jewish males were marrying foreign women who followed different religions. "Daughter of a strange god" refers to a foreign woman who worshiped a Pagan deity or deities rather than Yahweh. In Verse 12, he predicted that God would "cut off" (that is, murder) any man who remained in a mixed marriage. Again, it was probable that the Hebrew men remarried women within their faith.
bulletMalachi 2:14-16: Divorce is treacherous behavior: "... the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant....let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away..." Malachi is condemning Hebrew men for abandoning their wives after many years of loyal marriage, presumably so that he could marry a young, more attractive woman. Malaci quotes God as saying that he hates putting away one's wife (i.e. divorce). This is the only place in the Hebrew Scriptures where God condemns divorce. God "was speaking of divorces motivated by lust, divorces that involved abandonment of women who had been faithful, loving partners though years of married life." 4 He was not referring to divorce generally.

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Key passages from the Christian Scriptures:

The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) includes the following passages relating to divorce and remarriage. The explanations of these passages is almost identical to those found in our essay on divorce/remarriage for adultery and desertion:

bulletMatthew 5:31-32: Divorce allowed, but remarriage often involves adultery: "It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement. But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery." This passage implies that if a man divorces his wife, that she and her next husband will commit adultery. Her original husband will be partly responsible for the adultery. However, if the woman had been guilty of fornication, then no adultery would be involved in the divorce or remarriage. And of course, if the wife does not remarry, then no adultery would be involved either.
bulletMatthew 19:3-9: Divorce allowed, but remarriage often involves adultery: "The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? And he answered...Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery." The Pharisees were challenging Jesus' beliefs about divorce. They sat on ecclesiastical courts and answered questions of law. They decided who could divorce and who could not. They asked him to interpret the passage in Deuteronomy 24:1-2 which allowed a husband to divorce his wife if he "found some uncleanness in her." Jesus, addressing the Pharisees, responded: "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder." This verse is often misinterpreted. Jesus was not implying that all marriages were indissoluble. What Jesus was actually saying was that the Pharisees were "not competent to serve as judges on the issue of divorce." 5 As Deuteronomy 24 says, it is the couple themselves, and not a court, who are to decide whether a divorce is to be implemented. If they decided to divorce, the husband wrote out a bill of divorce. He gave it to his wife and she left. By extension, today's Christian clergy have no authority to "stand in judgment over the dissolution of a marriage than did the Pharasees." 6

Some marriages cannot live up to God's ideal of a permanent, loving marriage. Because humans are not perfect, God included provision for divorce in the Mosaic Law. In Matthew 5:18 and Luke 16:17, Jesus said that the Law was still in place. Not "...one jot or one tittle shall...pass from the law..."

Jesus concludes his speech with a repeat of Matthew 5:31-32. Again, there is no problem for a person who divorces and remains single. However, a man who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery. If his wife marries again, her new husband also commits adultery. However, no adultery results if the woman had been guilty of fornication.
bulletMark 10:2-12:  Divorce OK, but remarriage involves adultery: "And the Pharisees came to him, and asked him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife? tempting him. And he answered and said unto them, What did Moses command you? And they said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away. And Jesus answered and said unto them, For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. And in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter. And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery." This passage refers to the same incident as was described in Matthew 19. However, this time, Jesus states that remarriage always involves adultery on the part of the ex-wife and her new husband. The grounds for divorce are immaterial.
bulletLuke 16:18: Divorce OK, but remarriage involves adultery:  "Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery." This appears to be a third version of the same incident with the Pharisees. Here, divorce is not condemned. Jesus again links adultery to the act of remarriage.
bullet1 Corinthians 7:10-12: Ideal for separated couples: "And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife. Paul wrote this passage in response to questions raised by the church at Corinth about divorce and remarriage. He is describing God's concept for marriage: that it is life-long. But since humans are not perfect, some will not be able to attain this ideal.
bullet1 Corinthians 7:10-15: Special case where an unbeliever wants a divorce: "But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace." This is a continuation of the above passage. It covers the situation where a believer is married to a non-Christian, and the non-Christian insists on a divorce. Paul writes that if a Christian is deserted, that they are no longer bound by the marriage vows. They are unmarried and free to remarry in the future.

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The message of the Bible is consistent:


Genesis 2:24 does not preclude divorce and remarriage.


No passage in the Bible directly states that marriage is permanent.


Divorce and remarriage was permitted in the Law that God gave to Moses.


Jesus later acknowledged the unchangeable nature of the Mosaic Law.


Ezra and Malachi ordered couples in inter-faith marriages to divorce. This might have been because their marriages were viewed as illicit. There is nothing in the text to indicate that the Hebrew men were forbidden to remarry.


Jesus answer to the Pharisees, quoted in Matthew and Mark: "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" means that the Pharisees had no jurisdiction in matters of divorce. Only the couple, alone, could decide whether to terminate their marriage.


God's goal for marriage is permanence. All couples should aim for this goal. However some cannot attain it. For them, divorce and subsequent remarriage -- though regrettable -- is permissible and is often the least worse option.


Paul instructed the members of the church at Corinth that the ideal goal for a separated or divorced couple are to seek reconciliation or to remain celibate. However, a divorce is permissible in the case of desertion. He says nothing about remarriage. But from the rest of the Bible one can assume that remarriage was permitted after desertion.

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What about the adultery factor at remarriage?

As mentioned above, God's goal for marriage is permanence. All couples should aim for this goal. However some cannot attain it. Larry Richards writes: "Divorce...reveals human failure. In view of God's ultimate standard for us, divorce, while permissible, is still sin. And remarriage, while permissible, involves an act which measured against the ideal must be acknowledged as adultery....since we cannot be sure what porneia [in Matthew 19:3-9] involves, it is best to affirm that any divorce involves sin. And that any remarriage involves an act of adultery." 7

Although the act of consummating a second marriage generally involves adultery, remarriage itself is not an adulterous state. If it were considered to be adulterous in the Hebrew Scriptures, then the couple would be executed by stoning. Yet the Hebrew Scriptures indicate that couples were free to divorce and remarry. "In no place does God prescribe separation for those who have remarried." 8 Adultery is thus only associated with the initial act of sexual intercourse. It must be confessed to God as a sin. Subsequent "sexual relations once again take on the holy and undefiled character of any valid marriage." 8

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Interpreting the Bible for today's society:

Couples should aim for a permanent marriage, until death do them part. However, humans are not perfect. Divorce and subsequent remarriage may be the least worse option in those instances where marriage turns toxic. Divorce and remarriage generally involves a single act of adultery. However, that can be forgiven. "...God understands our frailty; he does forgive, even the sin of divorce." 9

Marital separation is another option that is open to couples.

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  1. Larry Richards, "Remarriage: A Healing Gift from God," Word Publ., (1981). Out of print, but may still be available from Amazon.com online book store
  2. Larry Richards, "Divorce & Remarriage under a Variety of Circumstances," in H.W. House, Ed., "Divorce and remarriage: Four Christian views," InterVarsity Press, (1990), Pages 215 to 248. Read reviews or order this book safely from the Amazon.com online book store
  3. Ibid, Page 223.
  4. Ibid, Page 218.
  5. Ibid, Page 225.
  6. Ibid, Page 226.
  7. Ibid, Page 233.
  8. Ibid, Page 236.
  9. Ibid, Page 237.
  10. George R. Ewald, "Jesus and Divorce: A Biblical Guide for Ministry to Divorced Persons," Herald Press, (1991).  Read reviews or order this book
  11. "Welcome to 'What Does The Bible Say About Divorce©'," at: http://christiandivorce.1hwy.com/

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Copyright © 2002 to 2007, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-APR-18
Latest update: 2007-OCT-08
Author: B.A. Robinson

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